Monthly Archives: February 2014

CLASSICAL SINGING TECHNIQUE – Part II: THE BASIC ELEMENTS

POSTUREi-love-to-sing

Standing Tall. The singer might imagine being suspended from the top of the head by a string, maintaining a feeling of tallness so that it’s almost as if the feet are just barely touching the floor.  Feet are about shoulder width apart, with one foot slightly in front of the other.  One knee should remain unlocked (for one thing, to avoid the risk of fainting).  Wth arms loosely hanging at the sides, rotate the shoulders forward, then up, then straight back, and finally straight down to a resting state.  This final position will render the chest in a relaxed state of height.  This should be the default singing posture, and is especially important to maintain on exhalation or phonation.

BREATH SUPPORT

Inhalation is received not in the chest, but in the area just above the pelvis and all around the back just above the buttocks.  Think of an inner tube which inflates with inhalation.  Ideally after weeks, months and years of practice, such an inhalation will seem to inflate the lowest part of the rib cage and the area below it, and during exhalation/phonation, this inflation will be at least partially maintained.

Exhalation/Phonation – The Tube of Toothpaste.  Here’s a mental image often proffered by voice teachers, and one I have found invaluable:  When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste from the middle, the middle section deflates, much the way the chest will deflate if we try to expel the breath from our chest or upper abdomen – this is not conducive to good singing technique!

On the other hand, if you squeeze the tube from the very bottom, the entire portion above this inflates and maintains inflation.  Think of expelling your breath during singing in this same way:  All of the outgoing breath energy should originate from your pelvis, with a constant sense of sure and steady motion.  (Singing is always about motion, never about locking anything).  I especially find it helpful as I produce sound to think of this contracting motion from each side (above each hip) rather than from the center front or center back.

Freedom from Tension.  When you support your breath in the way I’ve described here, it will be easier to think of everything from above the pelvis to the top of the head to be as loose and tension-free as it can possibly be and still function as it needs to.  This includes all the muscles of the chest, shoulders, neck, throat, tongue, face and head!

The tongue and the lower jaw are two especially common sources of undue tension for singers.  Remember that the tongue musculature extends all the way back into the throat.  Think of muscular freedom all the way back, letting the tongue lie flat in the mouth, with the tip resting against the back of the lower front teeth.

As for the lower jaw, it should be loose and capable of mobility at all times when singing.  You can test this periodically.  Try gently moving the jaw inward or sideways while phonating.  If it moves freely and easily during phonation, it is tension-free, ideally with proper breath support allowing for this freedom everywhere.  But this will take some consistent practice and patience – keep at it!

With a little practice in mental pictorialization, you’ll soon be able to sense that freedom of tension as you allow the sound to resonate in its own way through your upper body.

RESONANCE AND ROUNDNESS – ACHIEVING THE BALANCE

Resonance alone, without roundness, will result in a nasal sounding tone – all in all, not the most damaging kind of singing, but not a pleasant sound either.  Conversely, roundness alone without resonance will be apt to sound woolly, swallowed, muffled and rather lifeless.  When we achieve just the right balance between the two, the resulting synergy can be spine-tingling for the listener.

Resonance of Tone – Resonance is what gives our singing tone its carrying power.  Any great opera or classical singer must be able to carry their sound, acoustically and unmiked, over a full orchestra, to be audible throughout the theater or auditorium.

If we imagine singing tone as a knife blade, we may think of two components of tone: resonance and roundness.  Roundness is analogous to the size of the blade, and resonance to its edge.  Resonance is the sharp “cutting edge” of the sound, the element that allows the voice to cut through an orchestra, for example, and soar over it to the ears of the audience.

Think of singing as speaking.  The consonants especially should be delivered from the forward part of your mouth, from the lips, the front teeth and the tip of the tongue.  This is a prerequisite to resonance.  Another is freedom from tension in the muscles, bones and sinews of the skull, neck and upper body.  Tension inhibits resonance, which must emanate from everywhere, but especially from the face and head.  Just as the consonants are delivered from the forward areas of the mouth, the vowel sounds should resonate from the “mask” area of the face – nose, eyes, forehead, and even the top of the head.

Humming, the Great Resonance Enabler.  Humming should be an essential part of our warm-up, as it connects us sensorially with forward placement and resonance.  Always hum gently, with lips together and teeth apart – in other words, with an open throat and a loose tongue and lower jaw.  (And of course, remember proper breath support!)  Feel the resonance not just over the nasal area, but more broadly everywhere from forehead to chin.

Roundness of Tone.  Roundness is what gives size, color and warmth to the tone.  It defines the character of the sound, its richness and identity.

The Yawn Effect.  Roundness is essentially about openness at the back of the mouth and the throat.  Think of yawning, and especially about the feeling just leading up to an actual yawn.  It’s a feeling of expansion in progress back there.  (Even the tongue lies down in submission, as we have probably noticed when we see a dog or cat yawn.)  Such expansion must never be held or locked, but induced and encouraged.  Think of it as a process rather than a finished state.  One useful method for this is to think of inhaling the first vowel you will sing.  Inhale with an open mouth and nose, and let the vowel shape the mouth.

Gathered Vowels.  Endemic to many amateur-level choral groups (including in our Jewish choral community) is a horizontal, mouthy, “uncultured” approach to sung vowels, where the mouth opening is spread too wide.  Such vowel spreading mirrors natural speech, and most singers are quite unaware that their vowels are spread, or of how much their sound could be improved by gathering/narrowing.  Vowel spreading robs the singing tone of its potential warmth, richness, vibrancy and carrying power, and it can be unduly taxing on the voice.  Why is this so?  It is simply a reality relating to the acoustics of the human vocal structure and apparatus.  Spreading the mouth for vowels inhibits the optimum acoustical setup for efficient vocal production.

Keeping our vowels gathered means simply maintaining the mouth opening within a width roughly not exceeding that of its relaxed state.  If you have your lips closed and relaxed, with a loosely hanging lower jaw keeping the teeth apart, you can feel the width to which you’ll want to restrict all of your vowels.  But remember not to force or lock your mouth.  Practice shaping all your vowels within this width, but in a liberated, tension-free way.

Line.  Here’s where vocal technique and musicianship converge.  Musically, line is the shaping and seamlessness of the vocal phrase through both vowels and consonants, an imparted sense of constant forward movement and arrival.  Technically, it is breath energy that is the engine propelling the vocal machine.  Steady breath energy is essential to the seamlessness and shaping of a line.

If we remember the simple principle that singing is the art of inducing, never forcing, we can never go too far wrong.    Join Email List

CLASSICAL SINGING TECHNIQUE – The Best Starting Point for Choirs

vocalesePart I – Making the Case.  

In learning to sing, whether in a very serious and comprehensive way for grand career ambitions, or in simply learning some of the very basic fundamentals in order to be a more effective choral singer, or perhaps to sing folk or light pop in the local coffee house on Saturday nights, one undoubtedly encounters many different technical approaches and philosophies proffered by many different singing instructors.  Some might be tailored to a specific style of pop, religious or other genre.  But if one is seeking the most universally practical singing technique, the classical approach is ultimately the most useful for any and all styles of singing, and especially for choral singing.  Why is this so?

Before proceeding to explore the case for classical vocal technique, let’s be sure to distinguish the difference between technique and style.  Style has to do with a subjective, artistic approach to delivering a song or piece.  We are conveying an attitude by following a kind of recipe whose ingredients all contribute to the finished stylistic dish.  Some of these ingredients contribute to the general mood and attitude, others might address a broader set of cultural trappings.  Style is nearly always the embodiment of an evolved musical tradition.

Country music vocals, to take one example, are often sung in a twangy, nasal style, and the mood is often anguished and mournful, generally in keeping with the lyrics.  And of course these are routinely done in a mostly southern style accent.  There are a whole array of other carefully cultivated vocal mannerisms that contribute to this “country” feel.

Technique is the set of skills we employ to convey the style – the developed physical abilities that allow us to skillfully and effectively sing in this or any given style.  It is the machinery that produces the display, the lamp that shines the light. 

At the risk of confusing technique with style, let’s employ the term “classical” (small C) to name this technique.  Classical is also a broad style or group of sub-styles – Baroque, Classical (with a capital C, denoting an actual historic period of roughly 1750-1820, and including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven), Renaissance, Romantic and 20th Century modern.  But we’ll use the small-C term classical to refer to the singing technique that began to grow and develop in Europe during the great flourishing of opera in the 17th and 18th centuries, and continues more or less unchanged to the present.  Here technique and style evolved together, the one to serve the other.

VIRTUES OF CLASSICAL TECHNIQUE

Efficiency.  By developing a technique that maximizes the balance of resonance and roundness of tone, we are able to produce the maximum sound for the least effort.  The voice attains more carrying power, richness, beauty, versatility and longevity.

Vocal Health.  When we produce sound with correct breath support and freedom from tension, we minimize the possibility of irritating or even damaging the vocal chords, and of developing the wrong muscles in the neck, throat and tongue.  With good classical technique, our vocal endurance is enhanced, even when we’re fatigued.  Over the long haul, we might well be enabled to sing beautifully for decades rather than just years.

Beauty of Tone.  Correct technique will help us render the voice in its optimum beauty and richness, no matter the style you’re singing in.  One of the endemic issues in amateur choirs is that of the spread tone, in which vowels are approached in a shallow, horizontal way.  The resulting “mouth resonance” tone is dull, uncultivated, uninteresting, lacking in warmth, vitality and, as it happens, carrying power.  Happily, this issue is not difficult to remedy with a little of our classical technique.

Versatility.  Proper singing technique in our classical fashion is beneficial pursuant to any style of singing.  Once you have it, you can all the more easily make technical adjustments to fit the style.

Choral Technique.  In the case of choral singing, regardless of musical genre, stylistic differences must be approached with more care and restraint than with solo singing.  Remember the concept of ensemble?  Whatever style elements are applied, they must be applied together as a group, otherwise the group will not sound together, and the whole idea of choral singing goes out the window.  This means that each voice must use the same essential tone quality, the same approach to diction, attitude, mood, etc. as all the others.

This is where it becomes essential to promote at a group level the basic fundamentals (at least) of good classical vocal technique.  Even just a few of the basics, addressed to the group consistently over time, can make a noticeable difference in the basic sound of a choir.  Then every singer will be more empowered to understand how to achieve these elements of style together, and the possibilities for good ensemble are all the more enhanced.

Remember:  Just because we’re learning classical vocal technique doesn’t mean we’ll have to sound like opera singers (though we could do a lot worse!).  Classical technique empowers us with a solid foundation on which to build whatever singing style we like.

In our next post, we’ll explore some of the elements of classical singing technique.     Join Email List